Sydell Miller is a retail pioneer, a powerhouse beauty industry exec, and a shopping enthusiast.
In the 1960s, she opened and ran a clothing boutique in Cleveland, Ohio, called, Tops & Bottoms. The store was right above her husband’s beauty salon. Then, together, they founded the haircare/ beauty brand, Matrix.
She also happens to be my grandmother.
Growing up, there have been countless lessons I’ve learned from her. Several of which include: the value of hard-work, the fact that ice cream is the only appropriate way to “wash down” dinner, the importance of finding a “love connection,” understanding that too many shoes is not a thing, and that family comes above all.
On my grandmother’s most recent trip to NYC, I grabbed Bogdana and we headed uptown for an afternoon of dress-up. Later that evening, I cozied up in her hotel bed, tape recorder ready, as we chatted about her early days in retail, how she convinced her husband to allow her to enter the workforce, her rules for re-wearing formalwear, and the everlasting impact of style & beauty…
Describe your style in 3 words.
Fun. Fashionable. Sassy.
How has your style evolved over the years? Has it changed as you’ve gotten older?
My style has definitely changed since I’ve gotten older. In my twenties, I had a lot of fun wearing mini skirts and dresses. And lots of boots! But now, I have two grown daughters and two grown granddaughters. I don’t want to look like them! But, I don’t want to look like an old grandmother either! So I have learned to find a niche of pieces that look fashionable, feel comfortable, and that fit me well and compliment my figure. I try to find things that are appropriate for my age, but are still unique and show that I’m enjoying life!
How did you start out with your store?
I opened my clothing store in 1965, in Cleveland. My husband wanted me to be a housewife. But, we lived in a tiny apartment and it took me all of an hour to clean – I didn’t know what to do with myself! He did not want me to work. But, I gave him an ultimatum. I told him that if I didn’t start doing something, I was going to have to find a lover for the afternoons just to take up some of my time! That’s when he finally agreed that I could open the store (laughs).
Not a lot of married women worked back then–let alone, owned their own businesses. Even today, it’s still so difficult for women to be taken seriously in business. Women just need more opportunities to become involved. We can’t give up on fostering women’s growth!
For me, I just liked to follow fashion. I admire fashion designers. When I was buying for the store, I would look for designers that were just starting out. I was inspired by them. And I didn’t want to carry the lines you’d typically find in the regular department stores.
Cleveland was not used to having such fashionable and fun clothes then. So, the store became extremely successful.
What types of pieces did you carry ?
I carried a brand called Mr. Pants (they’re no longer in business). They were one of the first brands to design menswear trousers to fit women. They coordinated the pants with shirts. Of course, in my store, I never put the outfits together as they were planned because I didn’t want to see all my customers looking alike! I separated all the tops from the bottoms, and did my own styling. And that was actually the name of my store–Tops & Bottoms!
It was amazing to coordinate wardrobes for women in the community who I had always admired for how beautifully they dressed. I found that they really liked my taste and asked for my advice, which was the fun part of working with my customers.
What is the item in your closet that means the most to you?
I love all of my clothes, but I have one special gown–it’s off-the-shoulder with black and white sequins. It’s exquisite. The only problem is that everybody saw me in it! That means I have to put it away for at least six to eight years before I can bring it out again.
Six to eight years? Nana, that’s crazy!
Well, the reason I do that is because one time I was at an event and a woman came up to me and said, “I absolutely love your gown, I loved it from the moment I saw you wearing it last year.”
I was floored–but, I learned something! Anytime I wear a formal dress, I put it at the back of the closet, on the rack, in the order that I’ve worn it. Then, they rotate through. That way, no one is going to embarrass me again (laughs).
You wear a lot of black and white… Are those the colors you feel most powerful in?
I think color depends upon the mood that you’re in–how you feel that day, what the weather is like, what you’re doing…
Black and white are my colors–I love them and feel comfortable in them. But, I think it’s important to have some color in your life–it’s fun and feels good! Sometimes, a beautiful pink or a powder blue can look great with my blonde hair.
You started your clothing store when your husband had his hair salon. Then, you started a beauty company together. And you were in the beauty industry for a long time. Do you identify more with beauty or fashion?
I still think I tend towards fashion. It was my first love. Clothing gives you the freedom to walk tall…
How do you view beauty as a part of that?
Beauty is important because it makes the total look. It doesn’t stop at clothing–but your eyes, your smile. These elements make everything just a bit more special.
I think fashion and beauty go hand-in-hand. People are different–from how they dress, how they style their hair, wear their makeup. I find it sad when fashion dictates a style and everybody feels like they have to follow that. Fashion and beauty were made to help the inner-self come out!
Are there things in your closet that you know you’ll pass down to your daughters and granddaughters?
Oh yes. I like to buy new things, so I make it a habit to clean out and do giveaways once a year. I’m so fortunate to have a granddaughter with the same size shoe as me, who also adores fashion and can wear my things!
Editor’s Note: I also feel VERY fortunate to have the same shoe size as Nana ;)
One thing you would never wear?
A bikini. Do I like them? Absolutely. Just not on me!
A fashion rule that you ascribe to?
At the end of the day, the only person that I have to satisfy is me.